Would the Real Content Management Please Stand Up?
The Birth of Content

Defining Intelligent Content

A World United by Intelligent Content


This post attempts to define intelligent content in a new and hopefully fresh way. While still compatible with previous efforts to define intelligent content, and to describe its utility, this attempt consciously adopts new language in the hope that doing so will provide practitioners with some novel tactics for explaining the nature, purpose, and value of intelligent content.

This post emerged in response to, and in conjunction with, discussions that occurred in early 2015 between Ann Rockley, Scott Abel, Charles Cooper, and Joe Gollner on the topic of how intelligent content might be repositioned so to resonate with a wider audience. The imprint of those exchanges can be seen throughout this post.

For another perspective on the subject, see the whitepaper “The Emergence of Intelligent Content: The Evolution of Open Content Standards and their Significance” (2009).

Defining Intelligent Content

Let’s jump right in and see what a new definition of intelligent content might look like:

Intelligent content is digital, data-driven, and dynamic.

  • Digital in being designed and built for a connected world.
  • Data-driven in being meaningful to both people and machines.
  • Dynamic in being responsive to different user needs.

Today, organizations create, share, and publish information in many ways. At any one time, these organizations will be engaging their audiences with email campaigns, social media interactions, digital catalogues, online information sessions, advertisements of various forms, educational and promotional videos, user support information, and yes even good old fashioned printed manuals, collateral, and books.

In order to do all this, these organizations need to prepare their information content differently than they have in the past. It is no longer practical to work in channel-specific content creation tools and then spend a lot of time manually reformatting and tailoring that content to fit other channels. Today, they need to prepare their content in a way that will let them do everything they need to with that content and to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Today, they need intelligent content.

When we use the word intelligent to describe this type of content, we are keying on the definition of intelligent as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge” (Oxford English Dictionary). Intelligent content, then, refers to how organizations articulate, share, and leverage what they know about their business, products, and customers. It’s how they create, manage, and publish this knowledge when they don’t know beforehand what format, or sequence, the knowledge will be most usefully communicated in.   

So let’s take a closer look at what we mean with each of the terms we are using to define intelligent content: digital, data-driven, dynamic.

Digital Content

Working with computers, of course, is not particularly new: the desktop publishing revolution took place way back in the 1980s. Communicators quickly became adept at using various computer programs to prepare and layout content. Production processes also moved more and more to being digital, and today non-digital processes are a rarity. But all of this is only the first step into the digital domain.

Ever since the World Wide Web appeared in the early 1990s, there has been a growing awareness that information content needs to be distributed online as well as in print. And in recent years, the explosion in social media channels and in mobile devices has flipped the publishing business on its head. Today, content must first be prepared for a mobile user – and this mobile user must be equipped with the ability to interact with, and to personalize, the content itself. This leads inevitably to a “digital first” mode of thinking about content assets.

In being digital, intelligent content is optimized for automation. Automation is used to locate content, filter it, sequence it, and format it to suit the highly specific needs of a given user, in a given location, at a given time, and with a specific objective.

Think of a buyer for a typical business who has been given a deadline to find and purchase a specific type of device. The buyer is away from the office and needs to do this research and make a selection using a smartphone. The product supplier whose content is easily found and viewed on this smartphone will be the one that gets a closer look. And the supplier whose product catalogue provides content that is clear, complete, and useful – and which answers the key questions the buyer might have – will be the one that wins the business.

As we can see from this brief example, the information that a product supplier provides needs to fit into an online, mobile, and connected marketplace. It is also important to highlight that there is probably more to this story: perhaps the buyer needed input from an engineering team in order to finalize the purchase decision. The buyer locates a technical specification for the device, available online as a carefully laid-out Portable Document Format (PDF) file, filled with tables and illustrations and supported by a three-dimensional model. If the buyer can send this PDF and model to the engineering team along with a link to the user documentation that is available online, then this part of the buying cycle can be kept short and sweet. If these stakeholders like what they see, then the green light will be given and the first purchase will be made. We can only hope that the product itself lives up to the expectation of quality that this supplier’s content has established.

So this is what we mean when we say that intelligent content must be digital. Throughout its life, intelligent content must be handled in a way that facilitates its publication, maintenance, discovery, and use by leveraging automated processes. This automation will further make it possible for teams of content experts to collaborate on the design, creation, and publication of the content – and to ensure that it is continually synchronized with the products and services of which they are a part. This points us to the next dimension of intelligent content, to the fact that intelligent content must be data-driven.

Data-Driven Content

In an earlier time, content was handled as something separate, self-contained, and isolated. All eyes were on how the content looked when published. Think of a team of technical communicators preparing user documentation, for example, with proprietary layout tools into which they copy and paste essential product details. Through this painstaking and time-consuming process, product part numbers become table entries and feature descriptions become list items. But no matter how good the resulting publication looks, you can just tell that there is going to be trouble when the time comes to update some of the product details. The copying, pasting, and formatting will need to be done again – and hopefully done correctly. For more complex products, ones associated with numerous replacement parts and troubleshooting steps, this update exercise becomes both expensive and frustrating. And this exercise is not limited to the technical documentation team. Down the hall in marketing, the very same thing is happening. Even worse, these two groups share each other’s content, again using the time-honoured practice of copy and paste. Before long we find ourselves in a situation where the marketing materials no longer jive with the user documentation, and neither line up with the details provided in the product catalogue or with the product itself.

Clearly this makes no sense at all. Organizations need their content assets to be data-driven. They need their content to be intelligent. This means that the content will incorporate the data resources that an organization maintains about its products or services, and will do so in a way that maintains an active connection with the master sources of that data. If the content includes part numbers then it needs to include the actual part numbers in a way that can be automatically kept in sync with the product design. If certain procedures in the user documentation are helpful as illustrations in a piece of marketing collateral or in a training module, then it should be reused in a way that can be managed and updated. This is a large part of what we mean when we say that intelligent content must be data-driven. It is driven by updates from live data sources.

Of course, there is more to intelligent content being data-driven than this, important as it is. In being data-driven, intelligent content comes to life as a data source in a way that was never possible with those large and impenetrable document files that we all remember so fondly. Intelligent content is consciously designed to showcase its structure and the meaning of its components in such a way that both people and machines can make sense of and can do something with. So rather than a proprietary file what can only be read by the desktop publishing software that created it, and then only insofar as is needed to print out pages, intelligent content can be read by anyone and can be prepared for use by any piece of software. If it isn’t obvious enough already, we will draw a line under this and stress that this is radically different. It is also a major advance over what we used to do.

So you will notice that we tend to talk about intelligent content in ways that are very similar to the way the information technology professionals talk about databases. We define the structure that the content will exhibit, the relationships that will be observed, and the metadata that will be applied to different components. To recall an earlier example, it may be important that part numbers are captured as part numbers, and that features descriptions remain identifiable as such instead of becoming simple list items. This way specific details from the master product database can be pushed into the documentation at the right places, and a technical communicator can be prompted to write feature descriptions and troubleshooting procedures following the applicable style guidelines. Looking downstream, validation software can check these details against the applicable rules and the formatting software can render them in the right way for each channel. And the mobile application used by field technicians can leverage the part numbers to issue an order to the inventory system and the diagnostic wizard can walk the user through the right troubleshooting steps for a given situation. When both people and machines can understand your content magic happens – and this is no exaggeration.

If that were not enough, there is even more. In being data-driven, intelligent content becomes a resource that can be tailored very precisely to fit whatever is known about a given user. When the data showcased within the content is compared to the data available about a user, such as location, device, and even activity, we get a result that lines up nicely with what the user will find valuable. 

Think back to the beautifully laid out publication or product catalogue that the technical communicators had produced and we notice just how important the layout became for people trying to find information. Users with questions needed to find what they were looking for by traversing the way the content had been laid out. What content was relevant to the question would be found essentially by reading the text. First, the user would start with the Table of Contents, or perhaps consult the index, and then, based on that guidance, the user would scan a specific section of the document for the right information. As you can tell, this is essentially a manual process. And it’s a manual process that is unbearably tedious when attempted on a smartphone and especially when you are in a hurry.

In the age of big data, when so much is known about people and their activities, one of the better outcomes is that organizations can provide information that is individually prepared to fit peoples’ situations so they are in and out as quickly as possible. With all this data at our disposal, we will be increasingly able to answer people’s questions before they ask for them. So, again, it’s time to say goodbye to imagining that users want to click, scroll, and scan in the vain hope of finding the one detail that is relevant to them.

With intelligent content, we can do so much better.

Traditional Methods of Information Discovery

Dynamic Content

Content that is both digital and data-driven is poised then to be highly dynamic. This means that the content can be adapted quickly and efficiently to exactly suit the needs of different users. It is fundamentally responsive, which is much more than simply adapting to different viewing dimensions. Intelligent content that is genuinely dynamic can be programmatically adapted to reflect specific product versions, to incorporate customer-specific details, and to take into account a user’s location and even background. It can be adapted to work optimally in different formats, themselves produced automatically. For electronic delivery channels, it can parcel out the details in a progressive disclosure experience – where information details are provided as they are requested or as they demanded by a situation, instead of simply being dumped on the user at the outset.

A high quality print product can, with intelligent content, continue to be offered. And these print publications can be much better than their predecessors. For one, they can made very specific to what applies to an individual prospect or customer. No longer do readers need to guess what product version number applies to them, as most of us need to do when we open our car driver’s manual. This is a good thing but we all know that our primary interest has moved well beyond print. Electronic documentation that knows what version and configuration of the product you have is going to be infinitely more useful than printed manuals. Today, car manufacturers provide technicians, and even users, with augmented reality enabled tablets that literally show them what to do when there is a problem. Powered by intelligent content that is digital, data-driven, and dynamic, these tablets will tap into the experiences of thousands, if not millions, of other users in order to recommend the action that is statistically most likely to solve the problem. And as technician work through the problems, the tablet based application dynamically interacts with the online catalogue of spare parts to order replacements and automatically updates the vehicle maintenance records as well as the auto-shop’s work management system.

Now we can see how intelligent content brings together these three key attributes of digital, data-driven, and dynamic in order to provide users with a fundamentally superior experience. This improved experience stretches across the complete customer experience lifecycle from pre-sales encounters through to customer retention efforts. Taken to its fullest realization, intelligent content comes to play a critical role in a complex, dynamic system that is the integrated product lifecycle. Intelligent content captures and incorporates the feedback of customers distilled from their experiences as users of the product. It thereby engenders a learning process that supplies the grist to the mill of product innovation. So it is that intelligent content not only improves with time (as opposed to degrading, which is a distinct feature of past approaches), but it leads directly to better products and therefore better organizational performance. It is in this way that it becomes possible to talk about content, when it is intelligent, as a strategic asset.

We can also see that organizations benefit in other ways as well. The discipline and automation that comes with intelligent content delivers efficiencies and improvements across the board. These organizations see their update cycle times reduced to an absolute minimum, the consistency of their branding messages maximized, and their content positioned to rapidly reach new audiences in new ways. There are savings to be sure, for example by containing localization costs, but the bigger story focuses on what now becomes possible. In the battle to find, convert, and satisfy customers, intelligent content is one weapon organizations can no longer do without.

Joe Gollner plugged into Intelligent Content


In general, there is merit in exploring the words that we use and experimenting with how they might be defined differently. These exploits with Intelligent Content are primarily of value in that they help us to build up, and to share, a better understanding of the root concept involved which is Content. This reminds us that "It's the Content,...."


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Marcia Riefer Johnston

Thanks for this fresh analysis, Joe, even as you clarify that it's "still compatible with previous efforts to define intelligent content." By the way, I kept thinking I saw you at ICC this week. I understand that you couldn't attend this year. Your name came up a number of times; you were missed.

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